NEW HAVEN – Sixty years ago this month, a group called the Five Satins recorded what has become one of the most enduring doo-wop songs of all time, “In the Still of the Night,” in the basement of St. Bernadette Church.
While the song endures, it is the story leading up to the making of the classic melody that Father Frank Carter, pastor of the celebrated parish, calls nothing less than providential.
On Feb. 19, 1956, five (well, actually, there were four that day: Al Denby, Jim Freeman, Ed Martin and songwriter Fred Parris) African-American singers were looking for a place to record with producer Marty Kugell.
Vinny Mazzetta, who still serves as an Offertory collector at the Sunday 10 a.m. Mass, suggested the church basement of his parish, St. Bernadette, near Morris Cove; and the pastor, Father Charles Hewett, “in a show of mercy,” according to Father Carter, agreed.
“They needed a place to record, and the pastor said, ‘Yes,’ no fee, no rent,” said Father Carter. “What better example of hospitality to highlight than that in this Year of Mercy?”
A lifelong musician himself, Mr. Mazzetta just happened to be available that day and was pulled in to play saxophone.
The group produced the song that day on reel-to-reel tape.
“It’s amazing … a song I recorded as a kid has lasted this many years and is part of history,” Mr. Parris told The Catholic Transcript from his home in Hamden, where he lives with his wife Emma, who is a member of a local Catholic parish.
“It’s been my life, that’s for sure,” he said. “Everything I have is all because of that song. It’s allowed me to do many things and meet a lot of people.”
He recalled that the group recorded the song six times that day.
“The equipment in that day was nothing like it is now, so if we made a mistake, we had to do it over,” he explained about the song that has been recorded by dozens of other artists, including Johnny Mathis, the Beach Boys, Sly and the Family Stone, Freddy Fender and Boyz II Men.
“Truly, all the elements [of a timeless hit] were in there,” he reflected, “but the fact that it was recorded in St. Bernadette’s added an extra blessing to it.”
Added his wife, “He’s said many times from the stage, ‘It’s been a true blessing from above.’”
Another providential event happened recently when Father Carter was standing in line at a local convenience store. Noticing a familiar-looking woman ahead of him, he asked, “Don’t I know you?”
The woman turned out to be the wife of composer and lead singer Emma Parris. And without skipping a beat, she blurted out, “We have to do something” to mark the 60th anniversary. Father Carter was in.
The occasion will be celebrated when 125 children from St. Bernadette School and their teachers and parents sing “In the Still of the Night” with Mr. Parris at 10 a.m. Feb. 22 in the church basement.
Mr. Parris wrote the song for his girlfriend while he was on night watch at a U.S. Army artillery base in Philadelphia.
The young men who recorded it returned to the service; the song hit the charts. Little by little, it became popular, and eventually, “In the Still of the Night” went on to sell millions of copies, including 32 million alone as part of the soundtrack of “Dirty Dancing.”
Ironically, the same group of singers never performed again as the lineup on that day.
People in New Haven still talk about several “doo-wop” groups from that time who would gather under street lamps along Dixwell Avenue, singing the doo-wop, doo-wah sound that some believe was made famous on the “In the Still of the Night” recording.
Music industry writers claim that the song remains the definitive doo-wop love song, frequently topping New York oldies giant WCBS-FM’s fan survey for the greatest record of all time.